Sunday, September 27, 2015

John Symons, A Voice of Peace

John Symons, a dear friend of ours, died recently. 

John and Ann Symons, Victory Day
Moscow, Russia - 2008

We met John and his wife, Ann, in Juneau, Alaska - over twenty-five years ago - when we all worked for the Juneau School District. We knew them, then, more in short greetings, "Hi, nice to see you. How are things going?" than in conversations. It wasn't until Drew, as director of the Anglo-American School of Moscow/St. Petersburg, asked Ann to interrupt her retirement and come to Russia as upper school librarian, that our relationship deepened. John came along as "Supportive Spouse," having retired a few years earlier. Ann's two-year contract at AAS extended, year by year, to six -- as ours did to seven.

In a city of 13 million, give or take a few million, we spent more time with Ann and John in Moscow than we ever did in the midst of Juneau's 30,000. Expatriate life tends to do that, bring people together quickly and cement them cohesively, in the absence of family and familiarity. The casual grocery store greeting in Alaska developed into toasts of friendship over Thanksgiving tables in Russia.

At our home in Arkansas this week, I found the basket of paper cranes John gave us.  He folded thousands of them during our time together in Moscow, pulling a square of origami paper from his bag whenever he had an idle moment.  The crane became, for John, an outward symbol of the cause he carried so passionately within -- peace.

I remember the day he opened his bag and gave handfuls of cranes to students….

John, Ann, Drew and I were chaperoning a group of AAS high school students on a trip to Egypt. On a ten-hour bus ride from Cairo to Siwa Oasis, a town about 30 miles east of the Libyan border, we stopped at El Alamein museum and cemetery. As adults, we knew little about the World War II battles that were fought in the heat and desolation of the North African desert. The students knew even less. They listened respectfully to the guide explain strategies and point out troop movements with his pointer, but we could see the "Why did we come here?" expression in their faces.

It wasn't until we stopped at the Commonwealth Cemetery that they began to make human connections… because of John. As each student stepped off the bus onto sand, he handed her/him an overflowing handful of paper cranes. "Place these on graves, and as you do, read the names and ages of the soldiers," he said. The students walked slowly, quietly among rounded headstones, reading. Within minutes, the tan landscape was dotted with color.

"They were so young."
"One soldier was only three years older than me."
"They died so far from home."
"What did they die for?"

--- reflections in journal entries shared by students


Wanting to remember and honor John in some meaningful way, I selected a blue crane from the basket this morning and took it to the labyrinth in our yard. As I entered and circled toward the center, I thanked John for his devotion to peace, his voice of reason, for the good he brought into this world. I left it at the entrance, beside the cairns. Whether it decides to stay and dissolve into the earth, or fly away, its spirit of peace will spread…..along with John's.

NOTE:  Shortly after posting this story, I received an email from Ann. Another of their friends - Holly Pruett - in Portland, Oregon, also, posted a story about John and his paper cranes on her blog -- today!
Serendipity, indeed!!



Sunday, September 20, 2015

An Afternoon at the Met with John Singer Sargent

In New York City - like anywhere else - it's easy to stay home on a Sunday afternoon. Clean the apartment, catch up on email, or fall asleep as that book you've been wanting to read slips out of your hands onto the floor. All admirable options. But then, there's that brochure from The Metropolitan Museum of Art on the table, the one that's been laying around all week. The one announcing the final two weeks of the "Sargent's: Portraits of Artists and Friends" exhibit. The Metropolitan Museum of Art!! It's a forty- five minute subway ride + walk away. I haven't been there in months.

What am I waiting for?

I enter the first exhibition room to find each painting encircled by at least five people, who have apparently asked themselves the same question. Some listen to audio guides, others read commentaries beside paintings, while a few quietly whisper comments to a companion. We all patiently wait our turns for the coveted spot in front of the next piece. If we bump a bag or brush against a hand poised to take a picture, we say a polite, "Excuse me," and move on.

John Singer Sargent,  Self-Portrait (1886)

John Singer Sargent received high praise during his own lifetime, but would undoubtedly be complimented by such reverent admirers, ninety years after his death. He is often referred to as "the leading American portraitist of his generation"(1856-1925). I'm unfamiliar with portrait painters who came before or after, but I can scarcely imagine any more gifted. Examples in the Met exhibit include:

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)
Carolus-Duran (one of Sargent's teachers)

William Butler Yeats

As admirers, we each pause longer in front of one painting than another, for reasons we might be hard-pressed to explain. Is it the subject, the technique, an expression or setting? Or a feeling, perhaps.

 I stopped at each of the ninety-two paintings, and returned to two.

A Gust of Wind

The first was a portrait of a woman - not seated in a chair, or posed as a statue - but on the move, outdoors, holding her hat in place as she strides through the grass. I want to know her story. Where is she going, and might I tag along? The commentary describes it as "one of Sargent's most daring compositions - freely painted and boldly abbreviated." Perhaps his subject was equally daring to move beyond a life of expectations.

The second could have been voted "The Most Unlikely To Get A Second Notice." It is unfinished.

Woman and Collie

A dog with his kind face and tongue hanging out; a faceless woman bending forward -- a friend, mistress, stranger? With only a few brushstrokes, Sargent began a portrait of companions, then "abandoned the composition before completing it." No reason why. He has left us to continue their story. As a writer, I'm intrigued by the challenge… yet more intrigued by Sargent's ability to capture my imagination, by what he has left undone.

I'm almost out the museum's front door when I turn around. I reach in my purse for my credit card, then walk to the membership desk. "I'd like to renew my membership, please."

 Next time, it's….

American Quilts and Folk Art
Ancient Egypt Transformed
Celebrating the Arts of Japan




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